SOMEONE put an open jar of jelly in the pantry. My husband found it there and asked why I’d put it there instead of the refrigerator. I insisted it wasn’t me and he insisted it wasn’t him. But it had to be one of us. And I worried. Because when you forget something or do something silly when you’re in your 20s or 30s, you chalk it up to being distracted; no big deal. But when you turn 60 and forget some thing, the specter of some sort of Dementia sneaks up on you. Of course this way of thinking is like having a headache and immediately thinking it’s a brain tumor. More likely it’s forgetfulness caused by the same thing as when you were 30. Anyway, now every time one of us forgets something we ask the other if it’s another jelly jar incident.

 I read somewhere years ago about a group of nuns who lived in a convent together. They all donated their brains to science when they died. And when they were studied it was found that, though some of the nuns were very old when they passed and all were very capable, smart women, some of their brains displayed advanced signs of dementia. Scientists wondered how they could’ve had such brain decay and yet been so otherwise competent to the end of life. They did some research and found that these nuns had a pact of lifelong learning. They would take classes, learn language, music, arts, right through the end of their lives. Neuroscientists now know that the brain may functioning well even when parts of it are degenerating if other parts have been used to learn new things. Those neural connections formed during lifelong learning help to make up for aging and dementia-caused brain loss. It’s been found that music and language learning are especially helpful for increased brain function. My 60th birthday was looming large and close and the jelly jar incident jarred me. I decided to take piano lessons. 

 I am not a musical person. Growing up I learned our family wasn’t musical either. We would sing Happy Birthday over a lovely cake and candles on each birthday, but at the end we would all look at each other in silence, then awkwardly applaud and laugh, and concentrate on the blowing out of the candles to distract ourselves from the tuneless song and I’d wonder how this dirge could help anyone celebrate. My husband’s family, on the other hand, sings Happy Birthday with gifted voices full of joy, and harmonize like a trained a cappella group. I had no idea it could be that way. 

We had a piano in our house that my mother bought at a barn  auction. It was old upright piano that looked like it had been pulled out of a redneck honkytonk in the 1800s. It needed tuning and refinishing. We couldn’t afford to have it tuned but my mother painted it orange with a faux wood coating, as one does in the 1970s.  Piano lessons were too expensive for  us but we would occasionally sit down and pound out Chopsticks or one-handed Silent Night on it. For the most part it stood, a silent orange sentinel overlooking our dining room.

 In school we could take instrument lessons if we wanted. Piano was not on the list. I chose the flute because I didn’t know what a saxophone was called. I was surprised when the music teacher handed it to me but too embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t the instrument I had in mind. But I did love my flute. It was silver, slender, elegant. It had felted keys and a lovely little black case lined with red velvet that each piece fit perfectly into. I would proudly bring it back and forth to school, take lessons with the music teacher and practice in my room at home. One day the music teacher pulled me aside and said he didn’t think I had the “wind” to play the flute. I think he was being kind because I probably wasn’t improving. He suggested another instrument instead and handed me a French horn. I hated everything about it. It was banged up and the brass was smudged dark, it had an undefinable smell of old metal. The case was huge, black, dented and worn. I would get on the bus and bump it along the seats, my face burning red with embarrassment. I don’t know why I didn’t just tell my teacher that I didn’t want to play it, I think I was just too shy. The worst part was that you had to purse your lips and make a farting noise into the horn to make it work. I cringed every time I tried to play it at school. Finally I told my teacher I was quitting instrument lessons. I’m sure he was secretly relieved as I don’t think I had any sense of musical timing or rhythm.

 After the jelly jar incident I looked online to find local piano teachers and I found the name of a woman who lives nearby: Ruth Wurster. I called her and told her I was interested in piano lessons. “And who are the lessons for?” she asked in a sweet grandmotherly voice. “They’re for me,” I said.
“Ohhh!” she said, sounding delighted. “You’ll be my only adult student!”  I didn’t mind though. The first lesson I attended, two tiny children came out before me having just finished their lesson. The piano teacher kindly introduced me to the children and I leaned down and whispered “This is my very first lesson ever!” The kids looked at me with huge pie plate eyes and whispered “Wow!”.

 During my first lesson I glanced over and noticed she had a little pile of Gold Star stickers on the corner of the piano. After the lesson I asked her  if I had earned a gold star.  She raised her eyebrows, looked over her glasses and said gently “Not yet.” 

However, I stuck with it, practiced often and I have earned some Gold Stars which make me deliriously happy when I earn one and have them proudly displayed in various places around my house. My teacher hasn’t suggested that I quit yet. I’m sure she knows I don’t have an ear for music or any sense of rhythm. But she is kind and she knows I want to learn, and that I’m easily motivated by Gold Star stickers. I’ve learned a few important Life Lessons from my piano teacher, besides how to read music and play a bit of piano, which I also apply to my artwork.

  • Before you start, take a deep breath and let your shoulders come down from your ears.
  • Practice.
  • Pretend no one is watching.
  • Most of the stuff you create may be junk, but if you keep practicing, sometimes it’s not.
  • Give Gold Stars.  Even Gold Stars in the form of words of encouragement or praise will boost others up.

So just perhaps I’ve saved a few neurons and even built some new connections up there! Enough writing.  I’ve got to go practice my piano now so I can get a Gold Star this week.

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